The Adventures and Misadventures of an Intern in Lagos, Nigeria
By Sean Pfitzenmaier
I landed in Lagos, got off the plane, and went through the visa line only to have some bloke ahead of me step on a discarded packet of hot-sauce- so much for trying to look semi-decent to my employer. After another hour and a half wait at the baggage claim, where I was preparing myself to set a new personal record for consecutive days of not changing my boxers, I hopped into the car and headed into the night.
So this was going to be home for the next ten weeks. I ended up in Lagos by accepting an internship with The FATE Foundation, an organization that seeks to promote economic development within Nigeria by creating and assisting Nigerian entrepreneurs. A portion of their program is to recruit MBA interns to serve as consultants for young Nigerian companies. This summer there were five of us; myself, two interns from Harvard, one from Boston University, and one from Columbia. The companies at which we were placed ranged from vitamin manufacturing to the telecom industry.
Nigeria is a country with people from over 250 tribes; the three largest being the Hausa (from the north), the Ibo (from the southeast), and the Yoruba (from the southwest). Lagos, a city of roughly 10 million people, is the commercial capital of Nigeria. Most Nigerians in Lagos are Yoruba, though Hausa and Ibo are not uncommon. For every tribe, there's a language, and evidently they are as different as English is from Japanese. Luckily for me, English is the official language, and has remained prominent ever since Nigeria obtained their independence from Great Britain in 1960. However, amongst the poor and uneducated, tribal languages remain the dominant tongue. I did learn a decent amount of Yoruba with 'Showa' (what's up?) and 'Abi' (correct?) being two of my favorites, but the best by far was 'Oienbo' (white person). I couldn't walk down the street without someone yelling 'Oienbo' at me, so you cheer and yell back. It was hilarious.
Politically, it's been a rough 45 years since independence. Leaders have been convicted of treason, government overthrows, rioting, civil war, and military rule. In 1999, Mr. Olusegun Obasanjo was 'elected' president and has been in power ever since. Interestingly enough, we (the interns) had to plead with the immigration officials, telling them we had lunch with Obasanjo just to receive re-entry visas. OK, so this might not have been exactly true. All I know is that I have newfound respect for international students, because dealing with visas is about as much fun as getting hit over the head with a 2x4.
Economically, Nigeria's GDP is roughly $125 billion, or 10% the size of the United States'. Breaking this down in per-capita terms, Nigeria's GDP is $1,000, or 2.5% of that of the United States'. Nigeria's economy is completely cash based, with no lines of credit available. This makes it extremely difficult for those without money to ever make it into the next realm of economic prosperity. Just imagine if we all had to pay for our MBAs upfront without the assistance of loans. This, combined with the fact that the banks are consolidating at the end of the year, has been a hindrance to foreign investment. The growing divide between rich and poor is noticeable. The middle class is virtually obsolete. It was difficult to observe a government that doesn't seem to care about its people. Then again, what incentive does the government have to change, especially when it was just agreed that Nigeria will receive $18 billion in debt relief? I have no intention of making this an opinion piece, so I'll spare the other thoughts that have lead to my own internal battle between rational thought and idealism.
The living situation was interesting. While one intern received lodging from his boss, the FATE Foundation put the other four of us up in a three bedroom apartment, in an 'upscale' part of Lagos. In all honesty, it wasn't bad - there was no AC and no hot water for the first four weeks, but compared to many of the homes we went by, we were living like kings. In some ways, it was sweet recess from New York, but it didn't take long before it began to feel like house arrest. I was convinced there were some hidden cameras, and that we were on Nigeria's version of 'Big Brother.' Our water situation was unique. At first we were slightly saddened to have no hot water, but then we were quite thrilled when we had water at all. However, as the summer progressed, so did the water situation. Meals had to be strategically planned. If you were stuck at the apartment for dinner, you knew it was going to be a rough night. Much like how the MBA1s had to build structures out of gumdrops and other random objects during pre-term, we had to build a three person meal out of three eggs, three pieces of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a half eaten box of frosted mini-wheats.
My day began roughly at 8 am. After getting ready, I would sit on the couch until I heard the honk of my driver's horn outside the window. It was hard to get used to the term "my driver", and the fact that he called me "Master" was even more difficult. His name was Taiwo, and he could neither read nor write. You would think this would be problematic, as illiteracy is generally not compatible with driving. Yet in a land where a foreigner like myself can pay 5,000 Naira (roughly $35) and receive a drivers license the next day, there were no rules. Driving in Lagos was an exercise in navigating chaos. The roads served as the track for one giant game of bumper cars. Eight weeks into the summer, my score sheet read three front bumps and two rear. Fortunately, Taiwo saved the best for last. He wasn't going to let me leave Nigeria without a serious collision. Helped by the fact that the headlights didn't work, we got into an accident that totaled both cars. Lagos has no stop signs, yield signs, and only a few traffic lights, which were optional anyway. Fortunately enough, all traffic heading one direction flowed, though I use this word loosely, on the right side of the road.
On a good day, my four mile commute took forty-five minutes. Considering the car did not have air-conditioning, I rode to and from work with the window down. This presented two problems. The first was the result of Nigeria having no emissions standards. Some people start their morning with a cigarette; I began mine with several drags of diesel. And so went the battle - breathing pollution or drowning in my own pool of sweat. I generally opted for the fossil fuels of Lagos, thinking that maybe I'd at least get a decent buzz. The other problem with keeping the windows down was the walking public, in particularly the roadside vendors and panhandling children. I didn't mind the roadside vendors. In fact I often enjoyed bartering with those guys as it provided great entertainment. I must have been the luckiest guy in the world because they always had a special price for me. It's amazing; you could buy anything from a bottle of Coke to a bathroom scale. These guys sold everything - literally. I was told many of them were doing this in an effort to save money for college. Considering the quality of their English, I believed this to be true. However, there were also the poverty stricken children who walked the streets with torn clothes and downcast faces. These poor souls would curl their small fingers on the window seal, all the while pleading for assistance. As Taiwo would attempt to shoe them away like a band of annoying flies, I'd be left questioning whether to help or not. Any description of Lagos traffic is not complete without the mention of the swarm of motorbikes. Speak to any citizen, and they will tell you that these people are the source of Nigerian driving ills. No space is sacred and no route undiscovered. Two feet between the front bumper of one car and the rear of another was a multilane highway for these guys. They were everywhere.
Eventually, I would arrive at the office and start working. My client was Design Options, a furniture manufacturer and retailer. The FATE Foundation thought this would be a good fit based on my software engineering background. No really, I actually requested a company very different from what I was used to, and this was that for sure. Design Options had been in existence for 18 years, though they had gone through a period of rapid growth in the last three years, with annual revenues tripling to roughly $2 million. However, monthly sales had recently declined from 25 million naira, to about 15 million naira. The company had different locations for their showroom, factory, and warehousing. Design Options was run by two directors; one was a trained accountant but had a passion for interiors, and the other who was trained in interior design. The directors believed the primary reason for declining sales was an ineffective sales force. Thus, their plan was for me to suggest and implement improvements. As a result, my first two weeks were spent at the showroom where I dealt with their client service staff made up of fifteen women. The second day, an employee came up to me, almost in tears, because she couldn't figure out the best way to display ten different kinds of curtains. This is when I knew I was in trouble. An hour later, we came up with something that pleased her, and she was happy. How the final solution was different from the other ten, I have no idea. Work soon became more interesting as I was able to spend time with the production managers, logistics managers, and accounts managers. I spent a couple of weeks with each, suggesting and making improvements where most necessary. Honestly, I found myself as much of a teacher as a worker.
Speaking of teaching, one of the requirements for all interns was to teach a class to Nigerian entrepreneurs. The class I was assigned was "How to Develop a Sound Business Strategy." Two lessons learned: When teaching a class of 35 Nigerians, don't necessarily use the first example that pops in your head. When given a question about the value chain, I began discussing the digital music industry. This was bad. Once I converted it to yams and plantains, it was much more effective. Part of my class also went through the organizational lifecycle. This went well until I mentioned 'death'. I soon learned that, culturally, there's a widespread fear of death. From that point on, I had lost them. If the goal was to encourage entrepreneurship, then I did just the opposite - no one wanted their company to die.
Socially, we hung out with three distinct groups of people characterized by how we got around. The first were the working class, primarily our coworkers. This involved going to bars, watching football (soccer) games, and sitting around eating pounded yam and fish sauce, which was about as good as it sounds. When meeting up, we'd travel via public transportation, which never ceased to be an adventure. The second group was made up of wealthy Nigerians, primarily people who had studied abroad and received advanced degrees. Here we traveled in Land Rovers and Escalades to the poshest Nigerian clubs. It was a blast until I heard 'Candy Shop' so many times that I started singing it in my sleep. We also hung out with U.S. Marines and Consulate Officers. This involved rides in armored vehicles with police escorts. Befriending the Consulate guys had its advantages. We were invited to the U.S. Ambassador's house (John Campbell) for his 4th of July Party. Utilizing my Stern networking skills, I began a conversation with one attendee only to find out he was the local undertaker. Asking one of our consulate friends why an undertaker was at the party, he said - no lie - "We were told the first two people we should befriend are an airline official and the best undertaker, because you never know when you may need to ship a dead body home." There were times when I was slightly concerned that that dead body might be mine. I've got stories of Al Qaeda threats, witnessing a murder, being in the midst of the ensuing riots, abandoning vehicles in an attempt to escape from armed carjackers, and escaping a voodoo demonstration that, if observed, was supposedly punishable by death. I could go into more detail, but I'm relying on selective memory to allow me to forget most of those events.
All joking aside, despite the inconveniences and the moments of potential harm, I had an amazing experience. It was interesting to pick up a British paper and read about Live8, only to sit back and realize that, in some small way, I was helping to alleviate poverty in Africa by having a positive effect on Nigeria's GDP. Lagos is arguably Africa's most important city and at times I looked out at the world around me and saw a great deal of hope, though those moments were matched with visions of desperation. So many educated and wealthy Nigerians are returning to the country after spending years abroad, a sight that speaks well for the promise of the nation. When I would ask one of these people why they were returning to Nigeria, the unanimous answer was "opportunity."
Yet I can't count how many times people from the working class, who I had never seen, would walk up to me and ask for my contact information in an effort to leave and come to America. When I'd ask these people what's wrong with Nigeria, their answer was unanimous - "lack of opportunity." And so it is. I don't have the answers nor, do I think anyone else does. Such is life in the developing world. But this I do know, given the opportunity to do it all over again, I would. Granted, I didn't make much money, and I don't have a full time offer lined up, but in the overall scheme of things, that's a small price to pay for the lifetime benefit of spending a summer in the crazy city of Lagos, Nigeria.